By Michael Stewart / Executive Editor
The Meridian Star
More than 300 community leaders gathered at the MSU Riley Center in downtown Meridian Nov. 21 to launch a $44 million capital campaign to raise money needed to build the Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Center.
Officials at the kick-off — dubbed the START campaign — announced that $12 million had already been raised for the interactive museum to be built in downtown Meridian at the intersection of 22nd Avenue and Front Street.
In September, the Phil Hardin Foundation in Meridian pledged $3 million in seed money as the lead donor for the museum and the state has granted $4 million for architecture fees and other related expenses.
“We’re aiming to raise $44 million to build the center, which will stimulate economic development, grow businesses downtown and create cultural opportunities across the state of Mississippi," said Tommy Dulaney, MAEC board president and campaign general chairman. "That is why we all need to invest in the START campaign.”
Actress Sela Ward, MAEC celebrity chairperson, dared the audience at the Riley Center to “believe that this state can create a world class arts and entertainment center through a unified effort.”
The Emmy and Golden Globe Award winner, a Meridian native who still maintains a home here , concluded, “My hope is that this dream will become your dream as well. The question now is, ‘What will it take to make this dream a reality?’ The answer is simple: 'Us. Every one of us.' Now is the time for us to take the lead and make this dream come true for the people of Mississippi.”
Slated to open in 2017, the year Mississippi celebrates its bicentennial, the proposed 58,500-square-foot Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Center is touted as a future showcase for the arts that will serve as a catalyst for economic development.
The project has lagged since 2001 when the Mississippi State Legislature enacted Senate Bill 2666, establishing the center. The biggest hurdle has been raising the $44 million needed to build the center, which will be dedicated to honoring the state's rich legacy as the home of some of the world's most renowned actors, authors, musicians and artists.
Mississippi is the birthplace of the likes of Morgan Freeman, Elvis Presley and Jimmie Rodgers. A few of the state's noted musicians include LeAnn Rimes, Charley Pride, Britney Spears, Faith Hill, Ike Turner, B.B. King, Tammy Wynette, Moe Bandy and Jimmy Buffet.
Authors include Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty and William Faulkner, to name a few.
"I think the MAEC will be a huge tourist attraction; a huge draw for people all over the world," Ward said. "We have an uncanny amount of celebrated artists from our state."
Proponents said the museum will belong to all Mississippians and that it is important for those across the state to realize that Meridian residents are serious about doing their part to raise the needed money.
"Meridian has stepped up," radio and television personality Paul Ott said of the $12 million raised thus far. "Now we are going to see if the state is going to step up starting in January. If it does then we will finally build the great crown jewel of Mississippi."
Ward said no donation is too small.
"When people hear numbers like $44 million they can't wrap their brains around it," Ward said. "While we will be able to get the grants of substance and private donations of substance, it's still going to take the $50 checks and $100 checks and $500 checks — whatever people can afford.
"One of the important things to remember is that when you invest in your community, you are investing in the quality of your life. It absolutely improves the community. It brings in a lot of money. It brings in opportunity for new businesses for growth, not only to Meridian but to all of Lauderdale County."
Once built, the museum will provide a catalyst to attract new businesses and industries downtown, proponents say.
"All these buildings downtown that are empty will be full and there will be places to shop and new restaurants, and won't that be nice," Ward said.
Mississippi Director of Tourism Malcolm White called the museum an important chapter in the story of Mississippi, while giving a nod to the father of country music.
"This has been a long and sometimes bumpy road to get to this crossroad in the history of the Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Center journey and the legacy of Jimmie Rodgers," White said. "All of Mississippi, and frankly students of American music across the globe, have great expectations and a keen interest in this component, this asset, this cultural institution in East Mississippi.”
About the MAEC
The Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Center is dedicated to celebrating the essence of Mississippi’s statewide legacy in the arts by recognizing and honoring Mississippi artists in all disciplines—including dance, drama, literature, music, and the visual arts.
It has secured a site for the state-of-the-art center and the state-sanctioned Hall of Fame in downtown Meridian. The building is currently in the planning stages.
For more information about the MAEC, please visit www.msarts.org. To watch a video about plans for the museum, please visit www.msarts.org/media.